With thanks to my Dad on his birthday


Family has been one of the constant themes on this blog, since I started writing it more than five years ago. I’ve put over 1,500 entries into this space since then, but I didn’t get through the first ten posts before I mentioned my dad for the first time. Since I’ve always been one who prefers writing over speaking, this is the best medium for wishing my dad well on his 70th birthday. I hope he still has many more birthdays ahead of him, too.

Parenting is great for many reasons, but perhaps the best one is that it wakes you up to how just difficult it is to raise a family. My own daughters don’t understand that yet, and I’ve told myself that one day, if they’re lucky, they will. But it will probably take arriving at the gates of parenthood to drill that point home. That’s certainly how it worked for me.

My dad gave me his name, and for many years I hated being a Junior. But now I’m OK with it, and I like his (and my) distinctive middle name. The world has thousands and thousands of Robert Harrises, but at least we have an interesting way to stand out in that crowd.

I’ve also written about being left-handed on many occasions, and I get that from my dad. It makes me different from most people, since we lefties are never in the majority anywhere (except for the cast members of Seinfeld, where Julia-Louis Dreyfus is the only righty in the bunch). I also enjoy counting Jimi Hendrix, LeRoy Neiman, Barack Obama, and David Bowie–among many others–in my lefty tribe.

But the thing I’ll always be most grateful for is that my dad taught me to learn how to love baseball. I had no idea about what baseball was as a kid in the 1970s, but that summer my dad took me to St. Louis to see a doubleheader against the Mets in the first Busch Stadium.

I’ve written about this before, how being a part of the baseball experience shaped me like nothing had before, and not too much has since. The best way to get into a sport is to go and see a game for yourself, and that’s probably always been the case. I’ve been to hundreds of ballgames since then, but that first game still remains a treasured memory. At one point in the game, Ted Simmons doubled off the outfield wall, and everybody came to their feet and cheered. All subsequent baseball memories have built upon that moment for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked my dad for taking me along that day, but I need to do that here.

The Dad memories don’t stop there, either. I remember playing Pong with my dad in either a department store or a grocery store, back in the 1970s. The sensation of being able to move a controller and have it move something on a TV screen was pretty revolutionary to the young kid I was at the time. Today’s kids won’t ever know what that feels like, but I remember it because I was playing a game with my dad.

My dad also took me to see Star Wars back in 1977, around the time that I turned nine years old. Before that, the only times I had been to a movie theater were old Disney movies with my mom. Those were fun, but Star Wars was different. Seeing R2D2 on screen again in The Phantom Menace a year ago reminded me of how excited I was to see him for the first time. And without my dad, that moment wouldn’t have happened.

So as my dad celebrates a big round number for his birthday this weekend, I’m happy that he’s made it this far in his life’s journey, and that I was along for a good chunk of the ride.

He threw the first pitch

I’ve written about the first baseball game I ever attended here. It was the summer of 1975, I was seven years old, and my dad drove me down to St. Louis to see a doubleheader between the Cardinals and the New York Mets. I remember a few things from that day, but the baseball end of it is a bit hazy. I didn’t know anything about the game at that point in my life, but I was eager to learn. Fortunately, there’s now online sources to assist me in reconstructing what I saw that day.

I remember that Tom Seaver, who was just about the best pitcher there was in 1975, was pitching for the Mets in Game 1 of the doubleheader. But what I couldn’t remember, because I didn’t know, was who pitched against him in that game. And the answer, according to baseball-almanac.com, is Lynn McGlothen, who later pitched for the Cubs but in 1975 was a Cardinals starter. He couldn’t know it then, but he was in the middle of the best three-year run of his career in St. Louis. In fact, he defeated the great Tom Seaver on that day. He must have been a pretty good pitcher in order to do that.

McGlothen came to the Cubs during the 1978 season, and he was a starter for the team in 1979 and 1980. He was traded to the White Sox in 1981, and his career came to an end with the Yankees in 1982. In his 11-year career, he threw 41 complete games, which is more than all but two active major-leaguers can say.

But the most shocking thing about Lynn McGlothen was that he died more than a quarter-century ago, and I never heard anything about it. Granted, I wasn’t paying much attention to anything in the summer of 1984, but when the trailer he was living in in his home state of Louisiana caught fire and took him along with it, there was no mention of it anywhere that I could tell. The Cubs themselves sure never mentioned it. He was only two years out of the game, and five years removed from this card, and only 34 years old. Life is indeed very short.

So if I was in the stands before the first pitch was thrown in St. Louis back in 1975–and I have to believe that I was–then the first pitch of a baseball game that I ever witnessed in my life was thrown by Lynn McGlothen. That’s pretty amazing, now that I think about it. Kudos to websites like Baseball-Almanac.com, which allow for memories to be reconstructed like this. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I ever do something like this.

Can’t go there anymore

The postcard above was sent from St. Louis to an address in Connecticut back in 1971. The words written on the back refer to the “new baseball park,” even though it had been in use since the 1966 season. And the irony of that description is that it was a “dual use” facility, meaning that the St. Louis Cardinals football team played there, as well. If you look inside the stadium, you can see the yard markers for football games. It wasn’t only the baseball stadium, but the Cardinals had Brock and Gibson and were winning pennants and World Series in those days, while the football team never got a whiff of success. So it was characterized on the postcard as  being the “baseball park.”

A number of years after this card was mailed to its recipient, and presumably kept somewhere in his or her possession, I attended my first baseball game at Busch Stadium with my father in 1975. It was a double header against the Mets, and I was introduced to something that would have great meaning for me ever since. So even though I didn’t care for the stadium itself, and I seemed to only go to games there when it was at least 110 degrees, I still recognized that the stadium was a special place.

In the 1980s or 1990s, the stadium underwent some renovations. The Astroturf was pulled up, and replaced with natural grass. That was a big improvement, but there were others, as well. And I went to the “new” Busch Stadium–which was still round like a batting donut or an ashtray–with my wife and older daughter in the summer of 2003. Almost 20 years after seeing it for the first time, it was still important to me, if only because I was introduced to the game in that spot.

But in 2005, the stadium was torn down to make way for a new, single use stadium literally right next door. The new park was asymmetrical, and opened up to embrace the Arch and other big buildings. The endless arch loop that ringed the top of the stadium was taken down, too. It sure seemed like progress to me.

Now move forward to 2010. My father and I attended a game, on another brutally hot day, in the new stadium. The amenities were nice, and the all-you-can-eat/drink section we were in was stretched to capacity. I didn’t really want to see the old stadium, but I noticed its absence when we arrived at the ballpark. And I began thinking about some things.

The first thought I had was that everyone who’s ever been to a baseball game has a “first stadium” as I do, but there aren’t so very many of the old ones left, anymore. If you’re in the same age range as I am, we’ve lost Tiger Stadium, County Stadium in Milwaukee, Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the Astrodome, Shea Stadium, Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Yankee Stadium, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, and the list goes on from there.

In 2012, years after my “first stadium” was torn down, and years after the 1971 postcard was sold or given away, I came across the postcard in a box filled them, from all over the world, in a bookstore in Evanston, Illinois. The bookstore itself is closing soon, proof once again that everything in life will come to an end, or at least morph into something unrecognizable.

When I found the postcard, I realized that I had to have it. A second chance at it wasn’t going to come my way. I bought the postcard, scanned it, and have now spent a few moments trying to make it come back. I can’t do that in a physical sense, but I can bear witness to the fact that it once did exist, and thousands–if not millions–were introduced to baseball on that spot. That by itself makes it worthy of some form of tribute, however humble this one may be.

Today, a Saturday in April of 2012, there are 15 major league stadiums (I know it’s actually “stadia” but I don’t want to use that term) that will become the “first stadium” of some number of people. And that ritual will repeat itself, every day, all season long. And then some day, one of these will be torn down, and some of the people I mentioned earlier will lose their “first stadium.”

Hopefully, these people’s attachment to the game will remain, even if their introduction point does not. And maybe some of them will also be fortunate enough to find a reminder of that place in a box some day. At least, I’m glad that this happened to me.

His place in history

Paul Reuschel

A week ago, when the baseball season hadn’t yet started, and the Cubs weren’t off to their “This will be a long year, won’t it?” start of 1-4 after five games, I scanned a card highlighting long-ago Cubs pitcher Rick Reuschel. Today, in the interest of equal time–and to keep me from going off on this year’s team too much–I’m going to spend some time recounting the career of Rick’s brother, Paul Reuschel.

Paul Reuschel, like Bill Plummer, just turned 65 this year. He’s two years older than his brother Rick, but made his big league debut in the 1975 season, fully three years after Rick had made his. There’s always a sibling rivalry going on, especially when one brother is in the majors and the other (older) one isn’t, but they appear to have gotten along reasonably well, if this photo is any indication.

I came across this card when I was digging through a box of baseball cards the other day. The pose that Reuschel is in, as with Bruce Sutter’s card from that year, is something that was common for Topps cards in that era. Sutter was about to have the breakout season that launched a Hall of Fame career, while Paul Reuschel’s pitching career wouldn’t survive into the 1980s. Same team, same pose, different career arcs. Such is life.

But the thing I wanted to say about Paul Reuschel is that his place in Major League history is secure. In the long history of professional baseball, he can say something that no other pitcher can. And it stems from a relief appearance at the end of a game during his rookie season of 1975.

On September 16, 1975, history was made at Wrigley Field in Chicago. And not the type of history a team might want to make, in their own ballpark and in front of fewer than 5,000 fans in the stands, with a few thousand more watching on cable TV. Baseball’s Game of the Week was on back then, but beyond that ballgames generally weren’t shown on TV. It was a different time.

Rick Reuschel was the starter against the Pittsburgh Pirates that day, but he was pounded in the first inning. In fact, by the time three Pirates had been retired, Rick Reuchel was done for the day, having allowed 8 runs (all of them earned) on 6 hits and a walk. Reuschel was followed by a series of Cubs pitchers, who proved to be unable to stop the Pirate juggernaut. By the end of the seventh inning, the score stood at 22-0, which was to be the most lopsided shutout of the entire 20th century. And this was being done to the home team, no less.

The outcome of the game had long been decided, but there were still two innings left to be played. How many of the 4,900 fans who attended the game remained in the ballpark at this point is anyone’s guess, but a number somewhere in the three digits wouldn’t surprise me too much. Who would stay to watch such a beatdown? Not me.

Rookie pitcher Paul Reuschel was sent in to absorb his share of abuse from Pirate hitters in the eighth. He retired the first two hitters in order, when up came Rennie Stennett, the Pirates’ leadoff hitter. Stennett had already racked up six hits on the day, and he proceeded to put the exclamation point on his day by driving the ball into right field.

As Stennett was  pulling into third base, standing up, I turned on a Cubs game for the first time in my life. I had a broken leg at the time, and would have rather been outside running around with the other neighborhood kids, but my cast and crutches made that all but impossible. A graphic was put up on the screen –a rare thing in those days–informing the viewer that Rennie Stennett had gone 7-for-7 in a nine inning game, and was the first player in big league history to accomplish this feat. The seven-year old that I was found this factoid most intriguing.

Reuschel retired the next hitter, to end the inning. He also finished the ninth without giving up a run, and became the only Cubs pitcher that day who wasn’t scored upon. You could say he had a decent outing that day, certainly a much better one than his little brother had to start the game. But Reuschel also carved his name into the history books by becoming the first, and so far the only, pitcher to give up a seventh hit to a batter in one game.

Just as Rennie Stennett made history by getting that hit, so too did Paul Reuschel make history by surrendering it. This was an otherwise meaningless game at the end of the regular season, and it’s an admittedly obscure baseball record, so nobody’s going to remember the name Rennie Stennett, much less Paul Reuschel. But, at the same time, this at-bat and its historic result was enough to reel me in as a Cubs fan, and set me on a path that has stretched out for 37 years since then.

If Paul Reuschel had retired Sennett, and made that TV graphic unnecessary, perhaps I’m not so intrigued by a baseball game on TV that afternoon. Maybe then I stay true to my Cardinals upbringing, complete with the World Series titles and an overall level of success that I can’t relate to as a Cubs fan.  Who knows for certain? But I can say that Paul Reuschel and Rennie Stennett essentially set my baseball course in motion, all those many years ago.

The pivotal year

I was walking my dog this morning when I noticed a penny in the street. It was in the crease between the actual street and the asphalt lump that rises to form a speed bump. Speed bumps are prevalent in my neighborhood, and they’re irritating but, like squirrels, they continue to exist without regard to my opinions about them.

As I have done before, I looked at the date stamped on the penny to see if there wasn’t something to be said about that year. And the year I saw, 1975, would have to be considered a very significant–if not the most significant–year in my life, at least so far as baseball is concerned. At the start of that year, the six-year old me had no interest in the game, but by the end of that year, the seven-year old me had an attachment to it that won’t leave me until I take my final breath. That’s how pivotal the year was for me.

It began in the spring, when I convinced my parents to sign me up for a baseball team in the Khoury League. Most of the kids on the team were my classmates at school, and this was a chance to see them outside of school, as well. I learned about the rules of the game, and swung a bat for the first time in my life. It was a feeling of departure from toys and childish things. Grown-ups played baseball, and now I was doing it, too. That was very important to me.

I also began collecting baseball cards, as kids did back then. The first time that I ever walked into a store, all by myself, and bought a pack of Topps baseball cards was an empowering moment. I wouldn’t have let either of my seven-year olds do such a thing, but it was a different time back then. Nobody knew what a UPC code was, for instance. You could probably walk around the store with a cigarette, if you wanted to. And a little kid could take some pocket change up to the cashier and walk away with pictures and statistics for ballplayers he had never heard of before. What could be any better than that?

There wasn’t much in the way of baseball coverage on TV, which was my primary window to the wider world in those days. There was the Saturday Game of the Week on NBC, and I started watching that. My father realized that I was old enough to appreciate the game in person, so he bought tickets for a double-header in St. Louis against the Mets in July. I remember my dad and his brother, my Uncle Mike, using a pocket schedule and the Cardinals’ pitching rotation to determine who the pitchers were going to be that day. It was something worth looking forward to.

The first day I ever went inside a major league ballpark, it felt like a switch had been thrown. The crowd, the noises, the commotion, the vendors, the whole scene was exhilarating for me. The Cardinals won the first game, and lost the second one, but I left feeling that something had revealed itself to me. It’s not a regular feeling to have, especially when you’re that young. But I felt it on that day.

The next big step in my baseball progression was discovering the Cubs and WGN Channel 9. I have written about that game here, and the call of Jack Brickhouse and the visuals of Wrigley Field acted as a 1-2 puch for me. This team played the same game that the Cardinals did, but they were on TV every day and the Cardinals weren’t. The sale had been made, as far as my baseball loyalties ran.

The final touch on my conversion to baseball came in October. Watching Luis Tiant pitch, and seeing the Big Red Machine do its thing, and understanding that these games meant more than the regular season games did, all brought the game home to me. It wasn’t summertime anymore, but baseball games were still going on, anyway. The long rain delay between Game five and Game six made me want to see the game that much more when it did come back. And then there was Game six….

I’m certain that I wouldn’t have been able to stay up to watch Carlton Fisk’s home run off the left field foul pole. But I remember being told that if Boston won, there wouldn’t be any more baseball until spring. I didn’t want that to happen, and I was relieved when there would be one more game the next day. Game sevens ever since have been special for me, especially because they’re so rare.

The end of the 1975 baseball season left me excited for the 1976 season. There’s always going to be a next year, and this year’s games are just about to start. The wheel keeps on turning, as it has since I was seven years old. I’ll be the first to admit that baseball is not life, but it does help to shape its contours. And there’s nothing else quite like that for me.

#Cubs now 36 losses away from the historic #DoubleTriple

The Cubs lost again tonight, but Albert Pujols got his 2,000th hit. I hope he picks up another 1,500 or so in a Cubs uniform in the years ahead. I can dream, can’t I?

1975 Detroit Tigers

Expansion team: No

Overall record: 57-102

# of win streaks of 3 games or more: Three

Manager(s): Ralph Houk

Hall of Famers on roster: None

100 loss seasons since: 1989; 1996; 2002; 2003

Pennant wins since: 1984 (World Series winner); 2006

1975 was the year I will always point to as the year I became a baseball fan. I bought my first baseball cards that year, and the 1975 Topps design is still my personal favorite, with the two toned color scheme, and the team name in another color on the top. Classic. I had the Hank Aaron card pictured above, but I wouldn’t learn about what made Aaron so important until several years later. I love the abbreviation inside of the baseball, too. The idea of a DH is too ingrained to make that necessary anymore.

1975 was also the year of my first baseball game. My dad took me to a Cardinals-Mets doubleheader in St. Louis, where I saw Tom Seaver pitch, and Lou Brock steal a base. The fans all started yelling “Lou!” but they sounded like boos to my seven year-old ears. There was some sort of a fashion show between games, where this retractable runway popped up from the playing surface. It seemed a little weird, but whatever. I loved it just the same.

One afternoon in late September, I was changing the channels after school (which was done manually in those days) and I saw a baseball player pulling into third base after hitting a triple. I remember the announcer saying that it was the first time in history that someone had gone 7-for-7 in a nine-inning game. The player was Rennie Stennett of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The final score of the game was 22-0. And the venue was Wrigley Field in Chicago. Life was never again the same for me after that. Jack Brickhouse, and afternoon games at Wrigley Field, and WGN broadcasts all began to cast their spell on me, and all these years later, here I am. Emotionally scarred, yes, but just as dogged as ever in my loyalty to my team, to the game, and to the city I now call my home.

The 1975 World Series was about as good as it gets. But this blog is about losing, and there was one team in 1975 that hit this magic number. But, a mere nine years later, the Tigers were as dominating a team as I’ve ever seen. So turnarounds do happen.

The Tigers ended the first month of the 1975 season in first place. But they took a 17-3 pounding on May 1, and that began a painful five month stretch to end the season. They won nine games in a row at some point, but they also lost 19 in a row. Even this year’s Mariners team can’t relate to that. The Mariners themselves were still a few years away, but another round of expansion was already being discussed.

This trip through the 70s will undoubtedly continue as the weekend in St. Louis drags on.